Steps to improving teacher ed

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Kate Walsh

Kate Walsh

The National Center on Teacher Quality Teacher Prep Review, the first-ever look at how this nation’s college and universities are preparing new teachers, didn’t just uncover a field of mediocrity—something that was widely suspected—but also documents a startling lack of consensus among teacher educators over the fundamental elements of teacher preparation.

In a previous Catalyst Chicago guest column, two University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program faculty members worried that the NCTQ Teacher Prep Review would not ‘foster the necessary collaborative efforts’ needed for ‘constructive and enduring change.’ Both K-12 and teacher educators have preached the need for change in teacher prep practices for years and the Review doesn’t paint any different picture. But where we part with Kavita Matsko and Marvin Hoffman’s analysis is this: The barrier to change in teacher prep hasn’t been a lack of collaborative efforts, but the epic confusion resulting from three factors: 1) the field’s systematic failure to deliver the training that public schools need their new teachers to have; 2) public schools’ needs aside, the failure by the field to achieve a working consensus about what a well-prepared new teacher looks like; and 3) an unwillingness on the part of the field to foster transparency.

A similar situation arose more than a century ago when an educator named Abraham Flexner conducted an in-depth analysis of the nation’s medical schools. Up to that point, medical schools worked largely in isolation and ignorance of their peers’ practices. After years of research, Flexner revealed a field in disarray, with low entrance standards, weak coursework and minimal opportunity for high-quality practical experience. He found only one model of excellence–Johns Hopkins–but even one proved to be enough to transform the entire field.

Teacher preparation is in need of a similar overhaul.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had this to say about the Review: “Teachers deserve better support and better training than teachers’ colleges today provide, and school districts should be able to make well-informed hiring choices.” Over 20 state chiefs, 100 district superintendents, the Council of Great City Schools and almost 80 children’s, civil rights, business and education advocacy organizations across 42 states and the District of Columbia, all endorsed the Review.

The first edition of the Review applied a broad set of standards assessing the fundamental features of a program. Is a program’s training in reading instruction for elementary teachers research-based or merely the personal philosophy of an individual professor? Will elementary teachers learn enough relevant mathematics needed to teach to a high standard or do programs act as “enablers” of many candidates’ math phobias? Do teacher candidates get enough practice teaching in the hands of capable mentors or are great opportunities just the luck of the draw? Are programs looking at their outcomes or just doing the same thing every year without reflection?

Exhaustive ratings system

To look at these critical issues (and many more), we examine no fewer than 11 data sources including admissions policies, required textbooks and the instruments programs use to evaluate student teachers. No other institutional ratings are as exhaustive as the Review, drawing on so many points of data.

As states develop better data systems, future editions of the Review will put more emphasis on the actual outcomes from programs, such as the impact of graduates on their students’ learning. Even when such systems are in place though, we will still look at “input” measures such as the content of key coursework or the structure of the student teaching experience. That’s largely because of widespread dysfunction in the field, including significant variance even within programs. When a field is generally underperforming, as formal teacher preparation is, an outcomes-based approach alone runs the risk of only identifying the best of a mediocre pack, as well as concealing strong elements of underperforming programs.

That’s why diagnosis is so important. By examining how programs operate and what they teach relative to other programs, we help programs hone in on the practices where they may be weak or seek out high-performing programs which they may want to replicate.

In a field like medicine, looking at the documentation around which a program is built would likely be insufficient to uncover shortcomings because there is consensus that aspiring doctors should learn about the heart and liver. And practice their bedside manner. But in teacher prep, there isn’t consensus on the basics. Our Review revealed that teacher educators, even those working on the same campus, can’t agree on what the core content should be.

Nothing conveys the chaos we uncovered better than the reading coursework elementary teacher candidates take. As a nation we face a reading failure rate that is far worse than most developed nations. Three in ten children will not learn to read proficiently. Three decades of research funded by the National Institutes of Health tell us that we could reduce that rate of failure to fewer than one in twelve children if certain research-based approaches to reading instruction are used in the nation’s classrooms. Yet teacher prep has failed to embrace those findings, still fighting the reading wars. We found that less than a third are teaching even the outlines of those methods, with teacher candidates most frequently told instead that they should develop their own personal philosophy to reading instruction. As evidence of this free-for-all, the 692 programs we rated in reading were using 866 different reading textbooks, most propagating methods shown to be ineffective or even detrimental.

We are hardly alone in believing that this kind of information is valuable both for public schools who need to hire well-trained teachers and for people considering a career in teaching. For too long, schools seeking to hire candidates and prospective teachers seeking to choose a prep program have had little more than hearsay to inform their choices.

 In the first edition of the Review, 105 programs were placed on the Honor Roll. (That’s a lot more encouraging than the single strong medical school unearthed by Abraham Flexner!) These programs combine a commitment to seek academically talented teacher candidates, strong content knowledge preparation and well-structured opportunities for candidates to practice under master teachers. By pointing to models of excellence and identifying institutions by name when we discuss their important features, aspiring teachers, hiring districts and forward-thinking teacher training programs will be better positioned to make strategic decisions.

In spite of the resistance put up by higher ed to the Review, we are more convinced than ever that aspiring teachers and school districts don’t just need this information. They want it. That’s why US News & World Report remains committed to this work. That’s why we’re partnering with SearchSoft, giving school districts the ability to consider the quality of an applicant’s training when hiring new teachers by integrating our findings into HR software. That’s why nearly 70 private foundations and counting are supporting the Review.

The Teacher Prep Review will be released annually by the National Council on Teacher Quality as a contribution towards a world-class teacher preparation system, one that raises the training of the teaching profession to the level the profession deserves.

 Kate Walsh is president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.